When Jane O’Neill broke her neck in a showjumping accident, she thought her days with horses were over. But thanks to loyal friends and the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA), she has enjoyed success in carriage driving for 32 years, despite being paralysed from the chest down.
“Carriage driving was the last thing I saw myself doing when I was showjumping, but my friends didn’t want me to miss out on being around horses. So while I was still in hospital following my accident, they bought me a pony and trap, and it all started from there,” said Jane. “I now love my driving and I love watching other people enjoy driving.”
At the RDA National Championships (13-15 July at Hartpury in Gloucestershire), she took the open carriage driving championship with Margaret Brockie’s 14-year-old Welsh section C mare Sweet Pea.
Alongside competing, Jane also runs Red Rose Carriage Driving in Southport, a driving club set up to offer driving lessons and opportunities for disabled people in conjunction with the RDA.
“The RDA have been absolutely fantastic — nothing is too much trouble, and I have them to thank for my love of driving.
“It gives me that sense of freedom that I can’t get anywhere else. When you are in a wheelchair, everything is at a certain level, but when you’re up in the carriage, you see so much more. It’s just nice being able to look over the hedge into people’s gardens and feel the wind on your face. It’s kept me involved in horses and every morning I get up and muck out, not in a conventional way, but I get it done. I never thought I’d muck out again after my accident.”
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Meet this inspirational rider, who was competing at the RDA National Championships last weekend (13-15 July)
Being paralysed from the chest down means Jane can’t use her hands or legs, only her wrists, so getting back on a horse was never an option. She uses a looped rein and wears special Velcro gloves that help her grip them when she’s driving, and ensuring the ponies have good temperaments is vital.
“They are all special ponies and have to be very responsive to my voice and light in my hand,” explained Jane. “Sweet Pea is the loveliest little mare. She somehow knows when she has a disabled person driving her and is so gentle and careful. I’m so grateful I still have horses in my life.”
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